Before he became the auteur of mediocre drameties like Darling Companion, Lawrence Kasdan wrote or co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. For his third directorial effort, Kasdan created another action entertainment gem–although an unfairly overlooked one: the neo-classic western Silverado.
Shot against beautiful New Mexico scenery, Silverado plays as great escapist action adventure–big, loud, rousing fun, entirely lacking in moral ambiguity. When a villain kills a man, it’s murder. When one of the four heroes does it, his action deserves cheers. Kasden and screenplay collaborator (and brother) Mark Kasden laced the script with memorable lines ("I don’t want to kill you, and you don’t want to be dead") and cues for audience applause. Bruce Broughton’s rousing musical score evokes adventure and the bigness of the West.
I’d be hard-pressed to think of another western so nakedly in love with the genre. The movie opens in quiet and dark, as the camera lovingly examines a saddle, gun, and other cowboy accessories in a tiny, unlit cabin. Sounds from outside–a hawk’s cry, horses–come quietly through the walls. Suddenly a gunfight breaks out–several men on the outside vs. the loner inside. With each shockingly loud gunshot, a new hole opens up the cabin wall, introducing a new shaft of sunlight. (Silverado is also nakedly in love with it’s visuals, and with the still-relatively-new Dolby Stereo.) As the victorious loner (Scott Glenn as Emmett–the first of Silverado’s four heroes) walks out the door, the camera follows, taking us from a dark and cramped interior into sunlit, wide-open spaces as the music swells.
Between that opening and the climatic gun duel in the deserted street, Kasden treats us to a wagon train crossing a river, two jail breaks, multiple gun fights, several horse stunts, a stampede, and a saloon staffed with women of easy virtue. It’s as much an homage to westerns as a western itself.
And yet, with all that going on, Silverado takes time to breathe. Compared to Kasdan’s work for George Lucas, the pace is downright casual. It takes nearly an hour of screen time for the four heroes to meet, team up, have a couple of comic adventures, and finally get to the town of Silverado, and the more serious story.
While the characters are far from realistic (no one in the west was that good a shot), they’re deeper and more engaging than any found in a Star Wars or Indiana Jones flick. There’s one man–I won’t say who plays him—who may or may not be a villain. You suspect that he probably is, but you’re not sure. Then he fires a thieving employee, and when the ex-employee pulls a gun on him, he shoots first and kills in self-defense. Totally justifiable acts. But the cruelty with which he fires the man, and the joy he seems to take in the killing, leave us with no doubt. He’s a bad guy.
But what about the good guys? Two of the heroes–the above-mentioned Emmett and Danny Glover’s Mal, are iconic cowboys who seldom speak but know right from wrong. Mal is the more interesting of the two, partially because of Glover’s talent and charisma, but also because he’s a black man in an overwhelmingly white world. (Yes, I know, the frontier wasn’t overwhelmingly white, but Silverado is about the movie west, not the real one.) He conveys a great deal without talking. There’s a moment when, upon hearing of a heinous crime and people in trouble, he silently sighs and climbs onto his horse without saying a word. It’s a quietly commanding moment.
The picture deals with Mal’s race quickly and efficiently. In his first scene, he’s menaced by racists. After that, the issue is never raised again. Not historically accurate, but dramatically effective.
Kasden regular Kevin Kline plays Paden, who seems almost too urban to be a cowboy. A gambler and former outlaw, he sees everything as luck (good or bad), and it "only truly happy" in a saloon.
And it’s in Silverado’s saloon that he meets the picture’s most interesting character, Stella, played by the diminutive (4’9") Linda Hunt. In a world of tall men, decent wives, and dancehall girls, she fits no assigned role yet has found the perfect niche. She runs the town’s saloon with strength, determination, and good will. Stella and Paden hit it off immediately–not as lovers, but has very close friends. It becomes the most endearing relationship in the picture, and Hunt’s performance stands with Thomas Mitchell’s in Stagecoach amongst the great supporting parts in westerns.
Which brings us to the last of the four heroes: Jake–Emmett’s kid brother and yet another variation on that reoccurring western character, The Kid. A young, not-yet-famous Kevin Costner plays him as a happy, immature, post adolescent just bursting with energy. In his first scene, in jail, he swings on the bars like a monkey while explaining why he was arrested. I can’t help wondering how Costner’s career would have turned out if Silverado had been the success it deserved to be.
So why didn’t Silverado succeed commercially? I suspect that 1985 was a bad year to release a western. The cultural changes of the 1960s killed the classic western, replacing it as the decade ended with revisionist works like The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. These soon lost their audience, and by the mid ’70s, the western was for all intents and purposes dead. 1985 was too soon for a joyous, upbeat revival.
I consider Rio Bravo the most entertaining western ever made, but Silverado comes in a decent second. (For what it’s worth, Rio Bravo screenwriter Leigh Bracket wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, Kasden finished it.) Both lack the mythic power of John Ford, the dark humor of Sergio Leone, or the sad beauty of McCabe. But they’re as fun as this always-entertaining genre gets.